Hamas deals big blow to Saudi-Israel normalisation of ties

With its surprise attack against Israel, Hamas has violently shifted the world’s eyes back to the Palestinians and dealt a severe blow to momentum to secure a landmark US-brokered deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, AFP reports.

The Iranian-backed Islamist militants who run the impoverished, blockaded Gaza Strip on Saturday fired thousands of rockets and infiltrated forces into Israel, exactly 50 years after Arab states’ assault on Israel during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was at war. Just weeks earlier he had brushed aside the Palestinian issue during a speech at the United Nations and said that normalization in 2020 with three other Arab nations in the so-called Abraham Accords had “heralded a new age of peace.”

Netanyahu also said that Israel was on the cusp of a bigger prize — recognition by Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites.

President Joe Biden, eager before next year’s US election for a major diplomatic win, has pushed for a deal, and more talks were expected in coming weeks — despite skepticism from some of Biden’s fellow Democrats about the proposed security guarantees to the conservative kingdom.

“It was always a tough hill to climb, and that hill just got a lot steeper,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

The violence throws a spotlight on unresolved disputes between Israel and the Palestinians and “makes it harder to sweep those complicated issues under the rug the way the 2020 Abraham Accords did,” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has spoken recently of progress with Israel but also insisted on movement on the Palestinian cause, seen as a priority for the aging King Salman.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry returned to familiar language Saturday, saying in a statement that the kingdom had warned of an “explosive situation as a result of the continued occupation and deprivation of the Palestinian people’s legitimate rights.”

Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi expert on Saudi-Israeli relations, said the statement was intended to dispel any notion that the kingdom would prioritise normalization at the expense of supporting the Palestinians.

“This kind of situation has made Saudi Arabia go back to its traditional role,” he said.

“Netanyahu put another obstacle to these normalisation talks because he said this is now a war. I don’t anticipate normalisation is going to take place against the backdrop of war,” Alghashian said.

Netanyahu has voiced hope that the Abraham Accords showed a two-state solution for the Palestinians was dead and that the future went through relationships with Gulf Arabs, who share Israel’s hostility toward Iran’s clerical rulers.

Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israeli history, has continued to pursue settlements, although the prime minister backtracked in 2020 on annexation in the West Bank as he sought to woo the United Arab Emirates, the lead country in the Abraham Accords.

Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group, which looks to resolve conflicts, said Hamas may have acted in part due to fear of a “looming further marginalisation of the Palestinian cause in Palestinian eyes” if Saudi Arabia recognises Israel.

With Israel expected to respond forcefully to Saturday’s attacks, Arab states will likely feel obliged to take a harder line in line with public sentiment, he said.

“If that all happens, then I would foresee a scenario where, just like we have a cold peace between Israel and Jordan, between Israel and Egypt, we end up with a cooling of relationship between Israel and the Emirates and probably a delay, at least, of any sort of deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed to a survey that showed just two percent of Saudis backed normalising ties with Israel.

“It wasn’t that long ago,” he noted, “that there were telethons happening in Saudi Arabia in support of Hamas suicide bombers.”

The Biden administration has largely sought to lessen US involvement in the Middle East, also by easing tensions with Iran.

Iran’s clerical leadership, which since last year has suppressed major protests led by women, supports Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and hailed the offensive.

“This is about Iran’s priorities in the Middle East,” said Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that the attack appeared “designed to stop peace efforts between Saudi Arabia and Israel.”

“A peace agreement between those two nations would be a nightmare for Iran and Hamas,” he said.

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